Like many people, when the coronavirus quarantine began, I decided I was going to make the best of a tough situation. Some people took up baking sourdough bread. I chose to memorialize my grandmother’s Holocaust experience. Not exactly an uplifting project during a pandemic, but I’ve wanted to do it ever since I wrote her story for a college assignment many years ago – and then lost it.
I was motivated to rewrite her story for three reasons: Mikey, Sasha and Layla. My children. I wanted my kids – ages 10 to 16 – to know who my grandmother, whom we adoringly called “Bobby,” was, and the experience that shaped her. I wanted them to know the horrific tragedy that affected not just millions of Jews, but one Jew in particular.
I enrolled in a writing workshop designed to help families of survivors preserve their memories. Last week, I sat my kids down and read them Bobby’s story. I told them about the raging anti-Semitism in Bobby’s small village in the Carpathian Mountains of Czechoslovakia.
Jews were harassed, children were prohibited from attending public schools and businesses were forcibly shuttered. I shared how, at 16, Bobby risked her life to help support her family. She and a few friends would remove their yellow stars and sneak aboard a train carrying suitcases filled with meat to sell at a nearby town. On one trip, noticing a police officer eyeing them suspiciously, the girls jumped from the speeding train to avoid getting caught. I told my children about the day German soldiers marched into Bobby’s village.
Twenty-four hours later, she and her family were taken to the Munkacs Ghetto, which was just a pit stop along the harrowing journey to Auschwitz. I told them about the day Bobby arrived in Auschwitz. The sick and elderly were loaded onto large, open wagons. Everyone else was separated into two lines, Dr. Josef Mengele at the front waving his hand left and right, determining the fate of those who lived and those who died.
Bobby’s grandmother was ordered onto a wagon. A German officer noticed Bobby’s older sister, Miriam, holding her 6-week-old baby girl. He demanded that Miriam give her baby to her grandmother. Refusing to let her baby go, Miriam was forced into one line, along with Bobby’s mom and younger sister, Pessele, who was 12. Bobby was sent to the other line. She never saw them again.
By luck and ingenuity, Bobby survived the Holocaust. As tragic as her story is, she went on to live a full life.
When I learned a swastika and other anti-Semitic graffiti were spray painted on several Jewish University Heights businesses last week, it literally hit home. That is because for many years, Bobby lived on the very same corner where that hate crime took place.
My first thought: Thank G-d Bobby is not alive to relive this. Then I realized, my kids are living this. Just last year, my daughter was the victim of an anti-Semitic act. Anti-Semitism throughout the United States is rising. According to the Anti-Defamation League, 2019 had the highest number of anti-Semitic incidents in four decades. At the same time, we are living in a society where systemic racism is pervasive. Our country is being led by divisiveness and discord, by a leader who brandishes bullying over benevolence.
The graffiti has been erased, just as countless other anti-Semitic vandalism has time and time again. But we cannot let the act itself be erased. We have a responsibility to stand up against this hate crime and others like it with zero tolerance. Bobby did not survive Nazi persecution so that her great-grandchildren – all of our children – should have to live through it again.
Yonat Assayag is a former Clevelander and Beachwood High School graduate who resides in New Rochelle, N.Y. with her husband and three children.